Friday, April 9, 2010


The moment he saw me, Wasimuddin came running from the sea. He had a nylon bag in hand sparsely filled with fish. Laying out his ware he began imploring me to buy some of the catch for dinner. When I declined he upped his sales spiel and quite soon was offering to off-load the entire lot for a negotiable price. Sensing my absolute disinterest in a deal he gave up and settled himself alongside.

We had been sitting silently for a while looking at the tide coming in before he spoke. “I don’t relish eating fish. It’s a sin to kill,” he said with a gravitas reminding me of moral science classes. “…if we don’t net it someone else will. Besides, only those fish not strong enough to evade our trap get caught.” His monologue now had an echo of Darwinism and had me glancing at him with a degree of amusement and admiration. The boy did know a thing or two about the survival of the fittest. I had seen him at work trying to beat competition from other little challengers. They all had tried but hadn’t pushed hard enough. They might have, I presumed, had this been a beach in Goa or Kerala. But this was Mandarmani, tucked away in the Bay of Bengal, and so far unaffected by burgeoning numbers. Like the hamlet its people had a languid attitude. Or maybe it was the wisdom of the sea that had rubbed off on them, making an eight-year-old sound so sagacious.

About four hours from Calcutta and 45 minutes short of Digha is Mandarmani, till a few years back just another anonymous sea-side village in the district of Purba Medinipur or Midnapore East, both names being functional. It has been discovered now and positioned as an alternate weekend getaway. Still, it’s a far cry, and thankfully so, from being labeled touristy though a string of all-budget hotels have lined up its shores. Herein lies the appeal of this seaside speck that “doesn’t have the roaring breakers of Puri” as I was woefully told, or the “fun of Digha” as others chipped in. “In fact it’s quite boring, a bit like Chandipur where the sea is miles away,” was another observation. I’ve often wondered why we get into needless comparisons. Why do we want Bombay to be Manhattan? Mandarmani offered itself and no more. And it was savoured.

The 173-km route from Calcutta snakes past Kolaghat, Contai (Kanthai) – which is also the closest you can get by the railways – and Chaulkhola where a left turn took us through a sequence of villages. What used to be a single, bumpy, dusty path running through the countryside till last year is now a paved stretch. The final 12 km ran through pastures and pukurs (ponds) which gave way to an assortment of construction, including mosque and temples, at Kalindi village which was a rundown sort of a place. As we entered Dadanpatrabar, the last link leading up to the destination, the landscape changed to lively red mud flanking the track, swaying coconut palms and a mix of concrete houses and conventional huts playing peek-a-boo. The settlement had been described in websites as a ‘charming costal village’ and it lived up to that reputation. Immediately after, we were vrooming on a beach road, the firm sand making it smooth as silk. The waters had receded by the time we arrived but the whiff of the sea was enough for a round of exclamation.

Mandarmani is petite and placid. Nonetheless it has a distinction to flaunt, if Google search is to be believed, of being Asia’s third longest and India’s best motorable beach. The statistic notwithstanding the 13-km beach is a delight to drive on and the feel of being on wheels at the edge of aquatic blue is brilliant. Though it’s prohibited to drive in the bay waters, adrenaline rush does get motorists racing like no tomorrow. Unaware of the stricture we drove a wee bit too close, to be duly summoned by the coast guard and admonished. By then we had had our share of thrill and surrendered to the order.

During the duration of our stay the seascape remained tepid, neither lit by golden skies nor by the mesmerising glows of dusk which add shimmer to the waves. It alternated between an overcast grey and pale blue, with a blaze of luminous orange making an appearance once briefly. The painterly element apart, the sea shares a special relationship with the sky. They seem to meet yet never do. Both appear limited by horizons yet remain boundless. It’s this infinity that the quietude of Mandarmani enhances, with the unruffled waters adding character to it.

More than often you are likely to be the only person on the beach at Mandarmani, so quiet is it for better part of the day. Once in a while an Ambassador races past or a Trax-taxi comes in loaded with local passengers. At other times the brightly-painted indigenous motorized cycle carts will honk on seeing vacationers and offer a ride up and down the beach, which is quite a splendid option if you haven’t come by your transport. A few thatch-roofed shacks selling either pretty souvenirs or offering meals with fish of choice under striped umbrellas are the other spots of action. On weekends, we were told, tourists do flock but the count is nowhere close to cousin Digha which remains the numero uno for the majority Calcutta crowd.

Tourist days apart, Mandarmani does come to life in the morning and evening hours when fishermen return or set off for the deep sea in their trawlers. Activity builds up when the catch comes in which largely is an inch-sized silver-coloured fish, that’s dried for use as manure or in preparing fish bait, a major means of livelihood for the population in Dadanpatrabar. On other occasions the variety of fish that netted is sold in markets around, some of it playfully so by Wasimuddin and his gang of imps.

There is, though, one perennial occupant of the beach: the army of red crabs. In such abundance do they dart around that I mistook them for a red canvas sheet lying sprawled on the beach’s western end, an area they prefer inhabiting. Unexpectedly, it’s these crustaceans that have played a part in contributing to the name of the place. According to legend, the population of crabs sunning themselves on the beach resembled fields of the mandar flower (a species of red hibiscus) leading locals to poetically refer to the area as ‘Mandarboni’ that over time has shaped into present day Mandarmani, which I had incorrectly assumed to be a dedication to a temple.

Our weekend in Mandarmani was a lot about lessons in nothingness. Of calm mornings, lazy noons and balmy evenings. Of long walks in gentle waters, collecting sea shells from the unspoilt seashore and watching sail-boats ride the waves. The resort tried wooing us with a plethora of organised games and folk-craft workshops which somehow felt too much of an effort to exert for the mind that preferred being surrounded by the tranquility of the coast.

We hoped the place stayed the way it was — shy and small. Looking at the hotel expansion on the cards tomorrow seems all set to change. Till then, the sage-speak of a young man by the sea will probably continue to outdo his fish-mongering skills.

Getting there

AIR: Nearest airport is at Kolkata, 173 km away

RAIL: The nearest train station is at Contai

ROAD: Mandarmani is best reached by road via NH 6. Try and move early if coming from Calcutta to avoid getting stuck in the traffic at Kolaghat bridge.

When to go:

Round the year. Best in winters.


The Sana Beach Resort (033-64525172/09831031895) is star category but stuffed and hidden behind a wall of trees. The neighbouring Rose Valley (033-25006470) has friendlier ambience and spacious sea-facing rooms. Masara Beach Resort (0903861999) is an option for modestly-appointed cottages.


Stick to food at the hotels. Beach shacks do offer fresh fish but hygiene is questionable.


Seashell bric-a-brac sold at the beach kiosks make for interesting buys. The shop at Sana Beach Resort has an assortment of sparkling quality objects.


Daily activities at the fishing settlements on both ends of the beach.

Published in India Today Travel Plus, April 2010

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